Child Sexual Abuse: Risks, Signs & Legal Options

Childhood sex abuse happens at an alarming rate – in schools, churches, and even at home, especially for kids in foster care, often due to administrative problems:

  • Inadequate screening and hiring protocols
  • Inefficient handling of sex abuse claims

Parents and guardians can only do so much to protect children. Our team of attorneys can help you achieve justice.

Brian Kent “Public and private institutions have a duty to protect children from sexual abuse. Businesses and schools must take decisive action when children are harmed – or face legal consequences.”

— Brian Kent, Esq.

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The sexual abuse of children is a heinous, criminal and widespread problem all over the world. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 42 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated in 2006 that as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before they reach 18 years of age. The negative effects of child sex abuse on victims, their families, and communities as a whole, are severe, far-reaching, and long-term, often requiring many years of recovery.

sad little girlYet waves of recent lawsuits filed by child sex abuse survivors suggest that many institutions, both publicly and privately-run, are failing to take proper measures to protect youth from sexual harassment, abuse, and rape.

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Though reporting rates for child sex abuse are notoriously low – experts estimate that only about 10 – 30% incidents of molestation and assault on children are ever reported – the complaints that do reach the authorities are often ignored, readily dismissed, or ineffectively handled. Many survivors now look to the civil litigation system to help them obtain much-deserved compensation and achieve justice against perpetrators, as well as against organizations that failed to properly defend against and respond to sexual abuse of children.

How Does Child Sex Abuse Happen?

Sexual molestation, assault, and rape of children are widely considered among the vilest crimes against humanity, and you’d think that our federal and state governments would do everything in their power to at least reduce the incidence of such a horrific threat to society. Yet all over the news, we see case after case of sex abuse of minors. Where is sexual child abuse most likely to occur, and what makes it difficult to prevent and stop?

Predators Seek Positions Of Power

It’s obvious that predatory pedophiles on the lookout for victims would seek to spend time and work in places where they can interact with children. But positions that child molesters have been commonly known to take advantage of in order to target and victimize children and teens are those that offer power and authority over children and over communities. Using this authority and maintaining a facade of decorum, predators can, for example:

  • Gain automatic trust from children and their families
  • Evoke feelings of awe and admiration from victims
  • Arrange one-on-one time with children without arousing suspicion
  • Intimidate victims into silence
  • Rely on support from the community if allegations arise

Sadly, when abused children try to tell others about what happened to them, their confessions are often not believed, especially when the perpetrator is a prominent figure in a community, such as a beloved teacher or a religious leader.

Places Where Child Sexual Abuse Is Common

According to sex abuse statistics, as well as from the rise of recent lawsuits, there are many public arenas where child molestation and other sexual misconduct involving minors is likely to arise.

Religious Communities

One of the most highly-publicized scandals involving sex abuse in religious organizations is the long-standing issue of abusive priests in the Catholic church. Yet children of all faiths are at risk for sexual abuse, particularly those in religious communities that tend to be secretive or relatively isolated from the rest of society, because such communities may attempt to handle abuse complaints internally and avoid reporting them to authorities or sharing them with the public.


Though schools should be a safe place for children to focus on educational pursuits, studies show that child sex abuse is shockingly common, with as many as 10% of all children experiencing some form of sexual abuse during their time in school. And it’s not just public K-12 schools that suffer from this “epidemic” of sex abuse. Children and teens can be at considerable risk for facing sexual violence and molestation while attending:

You can also read more about sex abuse risks inherent to each different type of school on our Sexual Abuse In Schools page.

After-School Clubs And Activities

Many parents enroll their children in a number of after-school programs, where kids can have fun, make friends, learn and develop new skills, and engage in a variety of healthy physical activities. But such programs also may harbor predators looking to take advantage of children when their parents aren’t around. For example, a number of recent lawsuits have been filed by former Boy Scouts who say they were repeatedly abused by Scout leaders and other adult volunteers. Sporting programs, such as Little League baseball, which play an important role in the lives of many kids, especially student athletes with aspirations for a career in professional sports, have also been hit by sex abuse lawsuits. Many of these claims describe coach abuse, where coaches who spend inordinate amounts of time practicing alone with students are found to have sexually abused one or more children.

On The Internet

Even when children seem to be safe at home, they may be targeted by predators online. Many children and teens now spend a significant time each day on the Internet, whether on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and maintain some sort of online presence through social media or other means. Tragically, children who are simply looking for companionship online find themselves being manipulated into engaging in sexual text or video chat, or exploited / blackmailed by child pornographers into sending graphic images or videos. lured into meeting up with dangerous predators. Some children and teens even end up being forced into sex trafficking by contacts they meet online.

Signs Of Sexual Abuse In Children

The most effective way to help prevent your children from suffering sexual abuse is to be as involved as possible in their everyday lives and ensure that they feel comfortable and safe confiding in you.  Among the leading reasons sex abuse survivors give for keeping abuse a secret are fears that even loved ones and friends will dismiss their experiences as made-up or exaggerated, consider the confession “unimportant,” or blame / judge them for what happened.  This is why It’s absolutely crucial to let your children know that you’ll always believe what they say and take what they tell you to heart, and that you will do all you can to support them.

Keep in mind that it’s not common for victims to fully recount their painful experiences in a single conversation; it may take a considerable amount of time for them to be able to share their entire story. Experts note that it’s common for children to drop hints that something has happened to them, to test their loved ones’ reactions and level of receptivity. Then, if they’re encouraged by the reactions to their hints, they may gradually share more of what happened. Also, children are often initially more comfortable confiding in an older sibling or friend than in their parents or other older family members.

However, even if you’ve long had a close, trusting relationship with your children, they may still feel too frightened, ashamed, or uncomfortable to tell you directly if they’re experiencing abuse. After all, it’s common tactic for predators to threaten, manipulate, guilt-trip, or brainwash their victims so that they’ll be less likely to expose the abuse by telling loved ones. Pay close attention if you notice your child exhibiting unusual behavior or unexplained physical symptoms, such as:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Keeping secrets
  • Sudden changes in eating habits
  • Nightmares or other sleep issues
  • Ripped or bloody undergarments
  • Pain during urination or bowel movements
  • Preoccupation or unusual knowledge of sexual matters
  • Reverting to behaviors characteristic of a younger child (i.e. sucking their thumbs, babbling)

Another telltale sign of possible child sex abuse is when your child is suddenly receiving a lot of money or luxury items from unexplained sources, as predators are known to “groom” children for abuse by plying them with lavish amounts of affection, gifts, and favors in order to win their friendship and esteem before abusing them. You can see a more in-depth list of sexual abuse warning signs in tip sheets from prominent advocacy organization Stop It Now!

Abuse Survivors Turn To The Civil System

Criminal and civil cases can be raised over the same incident(s) of abuse, molestation, or rape, though each type of case is conducted quite differently, as detailed in this guide by FindLaw. One key difference is that criminal justice in the current U.S. legal system generally offers far less support to victims than civil litigation. Let’s take a closer look.

Cases Led By Criminal Prosecutors

Instead of being filed by the victims of abuse, criminal sex abuse cases are brought against alleged perpetrators by the federal or state government, led by a district attorney, State’s attorney, or other type of public lawyer. Unlike in civil cases, victims have very little control over the case’s direction, and criminal prosecutors tend to focus on proving the perpetrator’s guilt while overlooking the considerable trauma that the abuse survivors suffered. They often lack sensitivity in the way they work with sex abuse victims, submitting them to invasive questioning and pushing them to testify in court, processes that force victims to repeatedly relive their trauma.

Compensation Scarce Or Nonexistent

Another crucial matter that criminal prosecutors typically don’t consider is the matter of much-needed monetary compensation for victims to help them heal and recover from the abuse they endured. Abuse survivors should be compensated for considerable expenses they face as a result of suffering through tremendous hardship, which may include lost wages, medical bills, and the cost of ongoing therapy sessions.

Yet the pressing matter of relief for victims is rarely brought up during criminal trials, if at all. It’s all-too-common for victims to have to specifically ask for damages, and it’s not always granted, much less in appropriate amounts. When criminal courts do decide to award compensation to crime victims, they tend to dole it out sparingly, asking for every expense to be itemized. But it’s hard to put a price on the significant pain suffering, emotional trauma, and other forms of harm endured by victims and their families as a result of sexual abuse.

On the other hand, civil attorneys tend to be experienced in treating clients with compassion and consideration. Knowing that victims will often require years of expensive therapy to help them cope with their trauma and start the path to healing, civil lawyers do their best to fight for the large amount of compensation that would best help clients afford the support they need.

Related Child Abuse Pages